Reading for February 21st

Posted: February 19, 2019 in Readings

We’ll try to get through this on Thursday, though finishing Sontag may deter us from achieving that lofty goal. Whatever, we’ll just have fun and do the best we can. I really enjoyed laughing and chatting with you guys today. Let’s keep up the good work!


Michael Fried
(b. 1939)
“Art and Objecthood” (1967)

  1. Ethan Looney says:

    I sort of despise the idea of giving the situation of the art to the beholder. The way Morris talks about formatting a room to achieve presence… it just seems like he’s trying to evoke a specific feeling in the beholder. In my mind that makes your art phony. Maybe it’s because I always have to remind myself that if I’m creating something/learning something, I need not worry about if people will see it as impressive, I should just be pursuing it with an honest desire to express/create. Unless the purpose of the artwork is to maybe experience it vicariously through an imaginative viewer – in which case the artist can decide what the viewer is brining to the table – then the art you’re making is to please and evoke rather than to sculpt with honesty. This is not to say what the beholder brings to the art is pointless, but if I were a viewer and the artist was trying to make the art get something out of me rather than vice versa, I think I’d hate it. I would also ask, would Sontag hate this because it’s so complex on trying to produce interpretation/feeling? Or would she love it because it sort of does a lot of interpreting for you?

    • While most persons today still consider personal expression to be the whole point of art, our current authors have essentially left that concept in the dust. Wordsworth of course believed in the primacy of sincere personal expression, though he remains the Romantic ‘whipping boy’ of the semester. Eliot, as you may recall, will speak at length about the importance of artistic feeling, but this is something which is quite different from personal expression. Recall that for Eliot personality and emotion are precisely what all great art aims to eliminate. Also recall that Eliot contends that perhaps a majority of persons will never understand why someone might ever want to escape from personality and emotion, much less would they be capable of actually doing so. Of all our authors the one who seems most to believe in personal expression is Rosenberg, whose essay on the American Action Paintings views the work of key ‘Abstract Expressionists’ as embodiments not of meaning but rather radical acts of sovereignty, of will. Art is the trace which remains after a lone and fearless soul breaks free of all social conventions and constraints.

      In treating the ‘best’ abstract painters of his day, Fried argues that their works achieve a supreme and godlike indifference to the viewer. They simply are what they are, without any regard for anything outside themselves. Meanwhile, the Minimalist do directly address the viewer. Their aim is not to convey to the viewer any sort of meaning, but simply to create a ‘situation’ in which the viewer id forced to feel himself a part of part of the action. To put it quite blunty, Minimalist art is ‘interactive’, and for this reason Fried will argue it’s not really art at all.

  2. Aralia Ward says:

    I love how Fried talks about a sculpture’s presence in a room. It is interesting that these seemingly basic sculptures, for example, the six foot box, are described as having a presence in the room. Normally I would associate a ancient Greek sculpture full of detail, not a six foot box, to create such emotion. If this box has presence though, it must be art and not just a simple object.

    • That’s definitely the big question being raised in this essay: are these big cubes and oblong shapes compelling or merely interesting, genuine art or something qualitatively different and inferior. It’s hard, because of Fried’s use of language, to tell just where he stands on the issue of ‘presence’. I’ll try to clarify tomorrow.

  3. Sevin Park says:

    Fried says the movies is the one art by its nature that escapes theater entirely. I’m curious why he says this. I watch movies in theaters once in a while, so I would think the movies is an art that is closely associated with the theater. Unless he is talking about theater as in plays? If so, that would be a little more understandable, though it is possible to transform a play into a film.

    • You’ve hit on an essential passage. You’re difficulty in understanding Fried’s argumrnt here comes from assuming that his definition of ‘theatre’ is the same we commonly use everyday, when in fact he’s trying to establish a very specific technical meaning. One of the things we definitely learn from reading these texts is to slow down and take nothing for granted.

  4. ColinHancock says:

    I love to see the impact of the emerging field of psychology on these authors. Repeatedly, Fried refers to the ‘wholeness’ of literalist/minimalist art as ‘gestalt’. Gestalt, of course, was a field in psychology which focused on the idea that the ‘whole is something else/greater than the sum of its parts’. In describing the commitment of these artists to gestalt methods, Fried clarified for me the paradigm which the artists followed. That is, they believed that the wholeness of a picture was far greater than any summation of individual parts and relationships. Awesome!

    • Gestalt psychology, arising in conjunction with existentialist philosophy, suggested that the mind played an active role in shaping reality. The mind, this school argued, does not simply perceive reality but actively creates it. The most fundamental activity performed by the mind in this ‘world-shaping’ process is the synthesis of the manifold of sensations into a totality centered around some meaningful figure which stands forth against a background. Michael Fried argues that the best contemporary art not only acknowledges this, but indeed makes this mental act of synthesis its primary theme.

      Understanding this, it becomes possible to see why Fried might have had grave reservations about the Minimalist ‘art’ which was began to appear in the early 1960s. Minimalism’s innovators fundamentally reject the Gestalist view of human experience, arguing that mentally synthesized experience is mere ‘Ersatz’ (fake) experience, that it is ontologically inferior to actual experience. At the risk of sounding technical, I might say that Minimalist artists denigrated the ‘optical’ experience of art and life in favor of a more ‘haptic’ (tactile) experience.

      It’s for this reason that Minimalists strategically rejected painting, whose flatness (explored by Jasper Johns) had formerly been seen as the very emblem of modernism. Instead, they turn toward sculpture, which manifestly exists in three dimensions. In the war for artist prestige between Gestalists (abstractionists) and Minimalists, the field of battle, according to Fried, centered around the concept of ‘shape’. The finest sculptors, Fried argued, struggle to cause three-dimensional sculptures to take up the appearance (Gestalt) of two-dimensional paintings, while the finest painters labort to exalt the (minimally) three-dimensional (i.e., sculptural) materials of painting up into pure two-dimensional ‘opticality’. Meanwhile, Minimalists, quite to the contrary, consider such Gestalist efforts to be exhausted and, frankly, boring.

      Barnett Newman

      • Colin Hancock says:

        Thank you for clarifying! I didn’t realize Fried was expressing gestalt as a philosophy detested by the literalists. This makes so much more sense now; modernist and abstract expressionist art is inherently obsessed with the artist’s expressions and feelings and therefore it highlights human perceptions. This is, of course, opposed to the minimalist’s perception (ironic) that artists’ perceptions and implementations of artistic relationships spoil the actuality of the world. I love this kind of stuff: the differences between artistic movements is fascinating.

        • I’m glad that helped. Fried can be very confusing, as he uses the exact same words at times to describe to very different groups of artists and sets of values. He sure confused me the first several times I read his essay. As to why he does this I am still not entirely clear. However, that he does it is clearly the case. I had as much confirmed to me by art theorist W.J.T. Mitchell, whose book What Do Pictures Want? addressed this confusion. For all the confusion, however, it was clear that Mitchell nevertheless hold Fried in high regard. This makes Mitchell a decided outsider, as most art scholars, critics, and historian after Mitchell decided to follow the path laid down by the Minimalists. I hope to explain all of the a bit more clearly in class tomorrow. Hope to see you then!

  5. Kyle Jones says:

    To be quite frank, I had trouble understanding many of Fried’s views. What was the relationship between the literalists and objecthood, or more specifically, are they trying to deny or affirm a piece’s objecthood? Would Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (despite being produced in the 30s, much earlier than Fried’s essay) fall into this category? Also, Fried mentioned that cinema is not a modernist art, the reasoning behind this being that cinema is not theatrical. What did he mean by this?

    • As I said to Collin a bit earlier, this is a very confusing essay. I don’t believe it’s deliberately confusing, though it’s quite hard to read nonetheless. I believe I said it might be the most difficult assignment of the semester. In reading another art historian over the weekend, one who is unusually sympathetic to Fried’s work, I saw that he too found the argument not muddled, but perhaps quite oddly articulated. For better or worse, this is the argument as Friend wrote, and it has gone on to be considered a veritable classic. The main difficulty in understanding the argument is the result of Fried using a number of key words to refer to entirely different groups and values. The most significant of these is ‘presence’, which Fried uses to refer to the work of both Minimalists and their more traditional rivals. I’ll try to sort through all this in class. Thanks for being patient.

      For the record, the work of Rene Magritte is not Minimalist but Surrealist. That’s an art movement we have bypassed for the moment. You will find glancing references to it in Greenberg, who mentions a turn toward psychological content in certain European artists in the 20s and 30. In general, he thought these artists not worth studying, and for reasons you might now be in a position to identify. I fully intend to discuss Surrealism in coming weeks, gradually gaining access to it by way of Fried’s repudiation of all things associated with ‘Theater’. Stay tuned!

  6. Nick Fontaine says:

    As others have mentioned in the comments above, this essay was quite confusing. Fried demonstrates that literalist art strives to defeat objecthood through shape. At the same time, applying color to the piece reintroduces objecthood by establishing an awareness of surface. By introducing shapes aren’t you also introducing an awareness? Fried’s ideas concerning the relationship between the beholder and the object fascinated me. The object seems to wait for the beholder, and once in its presence the beholder becomes the object. At the same time, the object needs the beholder in order to convey its endlessness. Literalists art seems to promote an atmosphere that establishes an intimate connection between the viewer and the object, each incomplete without the other.

    • I can’t give you a decent response if I intend to arrive to class on time. I’m sorry about that. I spend approximately two hours this morning responding to one of the midterm groups. I will try my best to address your concern in today’s session.

  7. I’m gathering from the reading that a main idea of literalist work is to create more of an experience/atmosphere rather than a standing work. It’s more like the piece that they create is there to facilitate the experience which is the actual ‘art’ they’re trying to achieve. This explains the size of the art and the rejection of painting in favor of sculptural elements. Is this on the right track?

    • I think you’ve done as good a job of any student so far – dare I say ‘the best’? – of understanding and succinctly summarizing Fried’s argument. Good for you! I’ll try to draw out even more of what Fried’s is saying in class.

    • J,

      I feel very bad that I offered a fairly disappointing session today. It happens from time to time. But that’s certainly not how I would ever have it, especially when students such as you interested and thoroughly prepared. If you’d like more properly to discuss Fried, or any other assigned materials, we can certainly do that during office hours or via email. Just let me know.

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